The use of the narrative curve in episodic games

  • #1, by TymorWednesday, 19. October 2016, 22:50 7 years ago
    This is a little article/workshop post I made on another forum which was well received, so I figured I would post it here as well! Since they use adventure games as example I figure it might be interesting?

    The classic narrative curve
    It is very popular to make episodic games, particularly from a indie standpoint. There are smaller and easier to manage and develop for. They also have the added benefit of making fans excited and discuss the next installment. In this tutorial we are going to discuss the use of the narrative curve as it applies to videogames, in particular as it applies to episodic games. It is my hope that this thread will be a sort of workshop where I post an installment at a time.
    I think that most people are familiar with the narrative curves as it applies to movies and books. When it comes to episodic games and to some extent television series the curve will follow the same basic idea but will have a few more "repetitions".

    The narrative curve for theatre, but works for episodic games too!
    While episodic games have a single overarching story each individual installment need a smaller "inner" curve of their own. To illustrate this, I am going to compare two Telltale series that I think uses the inner curve well (Tales of Monkey island) and one that uses it not so well (Sam and Max season 2, although the other two seasons used this very well). Please not that I will discuss these games as well as others in the individual series freely, so there will be spoilers. They will also be compared to a potential game called Alex and Adva by Nooby Mcnooberson (ie me) to show how an idea can grow into a story by use of the narrative curve.

    Alex and Adva
    But first, the overall storyline of the three series.
    Tales of Monkey Island:
    While trying to defeat his arch-enemy the zombie-pirate Lechuck Guybrush accidentally makes him human again and releases his evil as a pox that infects the Caribbean. To cure the infected people Guybrush must find the fabled La Esponja Grande to suck all evil voodoo energy into it. Lechuck steals the energy and becomes a pirate god but is eventually defeated by Guybrush.
    Sam and Max season 2:
    Sam and Max investigate a couple of seemingly unrelated cases, eventually tied together by a couple of time-travelling mariachis and a takeover of Hell by bit-characters from the first season. could probably tell from the description alone that this season does not have a strong narrative. I actually struggled to try and keep the overarching story sound better, but had to give up.
    Alex and Adva (my own story idea in its raw form)
    Alex and Adva want children but are unable to conceive. As a jackalope it is Adva´s duty to guard the underworld and when Alex hears about a magical plant that can bestow fertility Adva lets him into the underworld so they can search for it together. Turns out the plant is a root from the world tree Yggdrasil. Demons are trying to cut it down and Alex and Adva must protect it.
    Let us take a look at the three series and how they begin their respective set-ups.

    The launch of the Screaming Narwhal
    This episode begins in medias res with a Lechuck confrontation, supposedly after an epic quest to create a sword that can banish the evil pirate forever. Gubrush bungles the spell and is stranded on the island of Flotsam. Here the main quest is introduced, finding La Esponja Grande to banish the evil pox and get off Flotsam. The episode is interesting because it has a climax, or at least something imitating the form of a climax, at the very start. The episode also ends with another confrontation being set up with pirate hunter Morgan le Flay, but not taking place in the episode itself. When it comes to the narrative curve the episode feels a little shaky, since the player can solve the puzzles and challenges in any order.

    Ice Station Santa
    The episode begins with Sam and Max finding out that Santa sends a murderous robot to their office. Deciding to investigate they find Santa possessed by a demon, which they excorsice. Unlike the first season this one seems to be cases unrelated to each other, which need not be a bad thing. The episode, taken on its own, follows the narrative curve well with a setup (collect items for a banishment ritual), a point of no return (portals to other points in times are opened) and a clear climax in the confrontation with Santa and even a resolution that makes fun of sappy christmas specials.
    Finally, let us look at my own first attempt.
    The set-up, the search for the plant, needs to be introduced. My original attempt stood on its own and concerned house-cleaning, introducing the characters and the game-system. While it was cute, itwas also really slow. My current first episode concerns Alex losing his book of magic and has to find a new one in a hurry in order to impress his employer. Breaking into the house of a magician he learns about the plant. By making the initial quest about something unrelated I can still present the world and its characters in a natural way. And so the adventure begins...
    This is the first installment, please tell me if this was informative or if there are any points I could improve on? Any specific points I should focus on when making comparisions between the two game series. Did it make sense for me to include my work on my own game in the comparison?


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  • #2, by afrlmeThursday, 20. October 2016, 01:52 7 years ago
    Some of the pictures seem to be broken.

    As for episodic content I quite like it, though I didn't really care to much about ttg's earlier stuff because of the outdated looking 3D graphics - the control interface of Tales of Monkey Island was horrible too - but I like their later stuff even though the player driven content is mostly faux (smokes & mirrors). I hate waiting for episodes to come out, which is why I tend to wait until they've all been released, though I confess I didn't wait for The Walking Dead ones.

    I agree 100% that episodic content is great for indie developers (commercial studios too, but mostly for indie developers) because it allows them to develop & get something out into the world much faster than a full feature length game. Also it serves as another purpose because there's no better guinea pig (tester) than consumers of your own product. Based on their reviews you can see what they liked, didn't like, what is buggy, what needs improving, what needs to be scrapped & whether or not it's worth continuing development on the rest of the episodes - if the game turns out to be a flop, then what's the point in wasting time, energy & possibly even money on carrying on with something no one cares about? Unless the negative reviews are mostly about technical issues such as severe bugs preventing people from being able to play the game properly as those can always be addressed).


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  • #3, by TymorSunday, 23. October 2016, 04:20 7 years ago
    So they seem. Weird. Do they appear at the end of the post? While I agree that the graphics is a bit outdated (some of Guybrushe´s face-off expressions in episode 3 borders on nightmare fuel) and the controls are clunky, I prefer Telltales earlier stuff although I have always found them a little overrated, to be honest. But they make good targets for an analysis like this!

    Moai Better Blues begins with flying triangles assaulting Sam and Max´s neigbourhood, kidnapping people and sending them to the easter island. Jumping into a triangle Sam and Max finds out from some talking moai heads that a volcano is supposed to erupt soon, dooming the island. To stop it they need to seek audience with the volcano god, guarded by baby versions of Jimmy Hoffa and Amelia Earhart among others (the fountain of youth is on easter island too). In the end the evil volcano god turns out to be Max´s pet goldfish. know how bad comedians think that they can just throw random wacky stuff into their act until people laugh and this is pretty much how this episode is written. The episode do have a clear climax when confronting the pet goldfish, though. As an aside, I do find the joke about the head of the Lincoln memorial falling in love with one of the moai head to be really funny. But since God is dead and we can´t have nice things anymore this episode also introduces baby Amelia Earhart, who reappears in season 3. 

    The Siege of Spinner Cay begins with a battle against the pirate hunter Morgan Le Flay. After making it to the titular Spinner Cay, Guybrush is tasked with finding three summoning artifacts in order to summon a create to take him to La Esponja Grande. However, a group of pox-infested pirates are bent on stopping him. Guybrush defeats them and uses the artifacts, which sadly results in him being eaten by a gigantic manatee. This episode, just like the first episode of Sam and Max, follows the curve very well. There is a clear set-up with the artifacts, a point of no return with the titular siege and a climax with a sea battle against the evil pox-captain. The only thing I would downgrade is since the final battle is a escapable battle (you need to lose at least once in order to replace your mast with a rubber tree) there is no real sense of danger. As yet another aside I must say I find teaching human Lechuck how to be an adventure game hero is not only funny, but hysterically so. Reminds me of teaching my mom how to play adventure games. My mom is not an evil zombie pirate in disguise, though.

    My initial draft for the middle of Alex and Adva was pretty straightforward. They go from A to B to C until they find the plant, fights the demons off and then you win. This makes the quest way too static and the central conflict at the end too sudden. The way I solved it is to make rumours about among the shades in the underworld about a large scale demon attack, as well as seeding doubts about if the plant they are searching for is really what they think it is. There is also an additional conflict with the lord of the dead, Tymor, since Adva has let someone unauthorized into the underworld, and the magician who Alex stole the magic book from. Alex and Adva becomes fugitives, which adds tension building up between them as well. 
    A point I wanted to emphazise is when the point of no return takes place. Since all of these seasons, including my own hypotethical game, has five episodes I would say that it takes place in the third episode. So for the next installment we are going to focus a bit about the point of no return. Tales of Monkey island has this weird thing where points of the narrative curve are shuffled around a bit. What would normally be a climactic battle at the start of the first and second episode. A good point of return would be swallowed by a huge beast (you could also go on a tangent about the hero with a thousand faces) which here happens at the end of the second season.    


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